It's that time of year again: Pretty soon, you'll be sitting down with piles of paper in front of you, getting ready to fill out your federal income tax forms, wishing for some good news, for a change!
Cheer up. There actually is some good news. Even if you end up having to pay Uncle Sam, you're almost certain to save money on your prescription medications this year.
That's partly because more generic drugs will be available, and they're cheaper than the brand-name drugs they replace. It's also partly because the "doughnut hole" in Medicare drug coverage is gradually being closed.
Starting with generics, several big-name drugs are scheduled to become available in generic versions this year, including the blood thinner Plavix and the diabetes drug Actos.
In fact, generics will have 80 percent of the drug market in 2012. And, since generics cost only 15 percent to 20 percent as much as brand-name drugs, this will mean a big savings to seniors.
You shouldn't be afraid of switching to generics. They're subject to the same rigorous review by the Food and Drug Administration as brand-name drugs. The FDA makes sure the generic and the brand-name drug give you the same amount of the active ingredients. They just cost less because the generic manufacturers didn't do the original research and development to come up with the drug (that's why brand-name drug makers are given exclusive rights to sell a new drug for a period of time - so they can recoup their investment). Nor do they pay for the expensive marketing campaigns, especially all those TV ads we've gotten so used to.
Generic drugs may use different fillers, coatings, and colorings, so they may not look like the brand-name version, but there won't be any difference in how the drug works in your body, which is what really matters. That, and the much lower price. There's so much money at stake that brand-name drug manufacturers are doing all kinds of things to keep generic drugs off the market.
This past year, when the anti-cholesterol brand-name drug Lipitor became available as a generic, Lipitor's manufacturer cut a deal with insurance companies, letting them offer Lipitor for a lower price. Some insurance companies would not even cover the generic version. That kind of sweetheart deal is not good for consumers in the long run since it interferes with real competition and drives up health care costs.
In addition to more options for cheaper generic drugs, there's also good news about Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage.
If you have high drug costs and you hit the "doughnut hole" in Medicare's drug coverage, Medicare will pay for half the costs of brand-name drugs and 14 percent of the (lower) cost of generics in 2012.
In 2013, Medicare will pay a little more for both brand drugs and generics and you'll pay less of the total cost. Because of these changes in the new health care law, the average Medicare beneficiary who hits the doughnut hole will save $735 in 2012. And, by 2021, the doughnut hole will be closed completely.
If you have the chance to use generics instead of brand-names, do it. This is a rare opportunity to save money and still get the same thing. You can get more information from Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs website, which has information to help you make sure you're getting the best deal on a variety of prescription drugs.
So talk to your doctor and your pharmacist about your options for generics.
Pollack is the executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit advocacy organization that offers resources on finding, choosing and using health coverage.